Covid-19 grant tests Sassa’s payout capabilities

NGOs wonder if agency can pay R350 each to millions

03 May 2020 - 00:00 By Graeme Hosken
subscribe Just R20 for the first month. Support independent journalism by subscribing to our digital news package.
Subscribe now
The South African Social Security Agency. File photo.
The South African Social Security Agency. File photo.
Image: Gallo Images / Alet Pretorius

South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) CEO Totsie Memela says she has had sleepless nights worrying about payout systems being able to operate at capacity when special Covid-19 grants start next week.

The embattled agency has a bold plan to alleviate the poverty of 7-million people through the government’s multibillion-rand Covid-19 fund.

But NGOs and academics monitoring the assistance system this week warned that the planned R350 grant is riddled with potential implementation holes. They also said increasingly long payout queues and the postponing of grant pay dates would endanger the lives of millions.

Grant beneficiaries are usually paid on the first of each month, but in future pensioners and the disabled will be paid out on the fourth and other recipients on the sixth.

In a soft launch last weekend, the coronavirus grant payout system crashed after 100,000 people applied for it via WhatsApp, Memela said, but she is confident the problems have been sorted out.

The grant is to assist unemployed people in the informal sector.

Criticism of Sassa has increased since the lockdown started, especially over the postponement of payout dates by up to a week and the agency closing its offices.

“Yes, the past four weeks have been incredibly hard, with many sleepless nights, but going forward we don’t see any real challenges,” Memela said.

“The big thing has been whether we have made the right choices in terms of how payments are made and that we deliver value to the people we help.

“We understand people are in need, but their lives are just as important. We could not bring payment dates forward because the government, which receives its revenue at month-end, would need to borrow the funds at high interest rates.”

She said that in future elderly and disabled people would be paid on the fourth of every month, and child support and caregiver grant recipients on the sixth.

“We are also looking at staggering additional payment dates, which will see the number of people having to queue for their payouts limited to help with social distancing,” she said.

“Soon our offices, which have been shut because of the outbreak, will be reopening and will operate at 30% capacity, with employees working in shifts.”

She said the automation of systems was the key to resolving any future problems.

“That is why we turned to e-vouchers, which can be sent to any cellphone, can be used at any retailer, are not limited in value, can be used to purchase any items and have no time period in which they must be used.”

Black Sash national advocacy manager Hoodah Abrahams-Fayker said the R350 Covid-19 grant fell way below the R1,200 poverty line indicated by Stats SA. “The grant will barely buy more than a loaf of bread to eat every day,” she said.

For years, Sassa has been dogged by legal battles and controversy. Since ending its controversial contract with Cash Paymaster Services in 2017, which saw the closure of nearly 8,000 pay points, and signing a new contract with the Post Office, Sassa has had the administrative nightmare of ensuring that 18-million grants are paid on time and in full, with beneficiaries often queuing for hours.

Abrahams-Fayker said though it noted the state’s efforts, problems under the normal payment cycles were now amplified. “There is scant information on how the most vulnerable, especially those living in rural areas, where there is hardly any cellphone connectivity, will be assisted.”

Caroline Skinner, a senior researcher at the University of Cape Town’s African Centre for Cities, said 25% of South Africans were unbanked, with 3-million people working in the informal economy.

“The e-system is a big advance in getting some money into people’s hands, but the R350 grant, while welcome, will probably only just be able to provide people with enough food for two weeks.”

Memela said the Covid grant would be limited to two people per household. “Caregivers, the homeless and those in government shelters will not qualify for the grant.

“This grant is primarily for those who sell food in the informal sector but because the lockdown cannot work, and then for those who are unemployed.”

Memela said National Youth Development Agency volunteers would be trained to teach people the application processes.

“This system does not require one to have cellphone data or a smartphone. You dial a free number and follow the prompts.”

subscribe Just R20 for the first month. Support independent journalism by subscribing to our digital news package.
Subscribe now

Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.